The ruling BJP passed the controversial Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, popularly known as the Anti-Conversion Bill, in the Upper House of the state legislature. The Bill, which seeks to regulate religious conversions in the state, has made forcible conversions a non-bailable and punishable offense.
The BJP managed to pass this Bill without a hitch since it enjoys a majority in the Legislative Council. Earlier, it lacked the required numbers in the Council and Congress and JDS may have fought the Bill. But, after the recent MLC elections, the BJP has a clear majority of 41 members in the 75-member Council, while the Congress has 26 members and the JDS has eight.
Karnataka has now become the 10th state to introduce an anti-conversion law after Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Odisha.
The government has justified this move by saying the law has been implemented to mainly prevent Dalits from being converted to other religions under undue influence, coercion, pressure, etc. According to Home Minister Araga Jnanendra, the law will “protect the gullible” from falling victims to forcible conversions through “allurement” and fraudulent means.
Also, the BJP, for a long time, had been mulling over introducing an Act that will stop forced conversions in the name of ‘love jihad’. However, when drafting the Anti-Conversion Bill, ‘love-jihad’ didn’t make it, as it is not part of any legal terminology. Yet, the Bill has been drafted in such a way that ‘love jihad’ cases will also come under its purview, said a BJP leader. Meanwhile, in the Upper House, Jnanendra said on Thursday (September 15) that many Dalits, who were converted by other religions, continue to get the benefits given to Dalits and minorities even after conversion. And, so the new law will now stop such misuse of provisions.
The Bill will allow anyone connected to the converted person to file a complaint, he pointed out. “If the converted person belonged to an SC community, then he or she would lose facilities and entitlements meant for SCs. That’s the reason we have given this provision that any nearest person can file the complaint,” said Jnanendra.
Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai commented on the new law: “It will not stop anyone from choosing any religion but only prohibits forcible conversion and conversion done by allurement.”
Marriages with the sole intention of unlawful conversion will be considered null and void by courts if a petition is filed either by the husband or wife. Also, a case registered under this Act is cognizable and non-bailable.
The jail term under this Act will be 3-5 years with ₹25,000 as a penalty for a first-time offense. And, it will be from 3-10 years with a ₹50,000 fine for converting minors, persons of unsound mind, women, or persons belonging to the SC/ST. The jail term will be 3-10 years with a ₹1 lakh penalty for mass (two or more) conversions and not less than a 5-year imprisonment with a ₹2 lakh penalty for a second-time offense.
The Bill is that it protects a person’s right to freedom of religion and prohibition unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or any fraudulent means. As per the Bill, allurement, that aids conversion is an offense. It can be any offer to tempt a person — be it a gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit, either in cash or kind; employment, free education in school or college run by any religious body; promise to marry; better lifestyle, divine displeasure or otherwise; or portraying practice, rituals, and ceremonies or an integral part of a religion in a detrimental way or glorifying one religion against another religion.
“Coercion” means compelling an individual to act against his will by the use of psychological pressure or physical force, causing bodily injury or threat, and “conversion” means renouncing one’s religion and adopting another religion. Using “force for conversion”, means using force or a threat of injury of any kind to the person converted or sought to be converted or to any other person or property. The fraudulent way of conversion means impersonation of any kind by a false name, surname, religious symbol, or otherwise.
The Bill says activities such as conversions are supported by legal entities, educational institutions, orphanages, old age homes, hospitals, religious missionaries, non-governmental organizations, and other organizations. It prohibits a person under 18 years of age from converting. It clarifies that the “religion converter” is the person of any religion who performs any act of conversion, like a Father, Priest, Purohit, Pandit, Moulvi or Mullah, under undue influence.
Any converted person, their parents, brother, sister or any other person who is related to them by blood, marriage or adoption or in any form associated with, or colleague, may complain of such conversion, as per the provisions under this Act.
Also, if any person wishes to convert, he or she should give a declaration in a prescribed format, within a minimum of 30 days in advance, to a district magistrate. He or she will notify the proposed religious conversion on the notice board at his/her office and the tahsildar’s office, calling for objections. After inquiry, if the officer concludes the commission of an offence under the Act, he shall direct the police to initiate criminal action for contravention of the provisions of the Act.
In Karnataka, any bill passed in the Legislative Assembly has to be passed in the Legislative Council too before going to the Governor for the final signature. If the Council doesn’t pass the Bill for some reason, the government can pass an ordinance through the Governor for six months, and then it becomes law.
Though it was cleared by the Assembly on December 23, 2021, it was not introduced in the Upper House, as the BJP lacked a clear majority at the time. In May 2022, an ordinance was issued to facilitate the introduction of the anti-conversion law.
However, on September 15, the Bill sailed through the Upper House amid objections by the Congress and the JDS, and was sent to the Governor. BK Hariprasad, the leader of the Opposition in the Council, slammed the Bill, calling it “unconstitutional”. “It will snatch the people’s fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution to profess, practice and propagate any religion of their choice. It is a conspiracy against equality and to continue treating Dalits and people from other down-trodden sections of society as second-grade citizens,” he added.
Earlier, the BJP government found it difficult to pass any Bills siding right-wing ideology, including the Cow Slaughter Bill and the Anti-Conversion Bill. The former was tabled in the Belagavi Assembly session in December 2021 and in the Council, though it was strongly opposed by Congress and JDS. However, the absence of JDS members helped the BJP to pass the Bill.
Interestingly, at that time, senior MLC Basavaraja Horatti from JDS was contesting for the post of council chairman as a candidate of the BJP-JDS alliance. Moreover, the BJP strengthened its position in the Council after the term of 25 MLCs ended. It is hence in a position to pass any bill.